6 Surprises About the Mediterranean Diet
Think you know the Mediterranean diet? Our dietitian shares 6 facts that might surprise you.
By: Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD
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The Mediterranean diet has been a shining beacon of light in the nutrition world for years. With sound nutritional principles and plenty of positive evidence-based outcomes, doctors and registered dietitians alike regard it as a healthy diet almost anyone can follow to improve their health.
You may already know the basics of the Mediterranean diet. But you might be surprised to learn a few things about its benefits — and the way it works.
You may know the Mediterranean diet for its heart-healthy attributes, but people who follow the diet tend to get other benefits, too. These benefits include protection for your kidneys, reduction in cognitive decline as you age, improvements in overall quality of life, reversal of metabolic syndrome, and decreased risk of peripheral artery disease and diabetes. The bottom line: Yes, the Mediterranean diet is great for your heart, but it has positive effects on your overall health and other forms of disease, too.
“Yes, the Mediterranean diet is great for your heart, but it also has positive effects on your overall health and other forms of disease, too.”
I’ve noticed that when some of my patients become fixated on counting calories, they stop caring about the quality of calories and only look at the quantity. While calories do matter, the type of calorie matters more. Consuming foods with little nutritional value or fiber can actually lead you to eat more and make you less interested in eating healthy. The Mediterranean diet, on the other hand, contains some of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world — foods that are filling, yet relatively low in calories. If you follow basic portion control, counting calories shouldn’t be necessary.
Do you fear fat? Many of my patients do. They feel that having fat in their diet makes them more likely to gain fat on their body. The Mediterranean diet, however, has a variety of foods that encompass healthy fat options. Nuts are a standout snack in the diet, as are olive oil and omega-3-rich fatty fish. All these foods help to keep weight down, not up — among many benefits.
Because the Mediterranean diet is lower in dairy (think cheese and milk) to begin with, and emphasizes nuts, individuals on a dairy-free diet can easily use dairy alternatives in their meals. Choose unsweetened almond milk in your whole-grain cereal, or opt for soy yogurt, for example. Further, those on a gluten-free diet can still enjoy the benefits of going Mediterranean by swapping whole wheat, rye and barley grains for brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet and teff.
One of the biggest misconceptions I see is that following a healthy diet has to break the bank. The Mediterranean diet is not only one of the healthiest options, but also one of the most economical, as well. While small in size, a 2013 study found that those following a Mediterranean diet cut their food budget in half when they stopped spending on snack food, meats, sweetened beverages and desserts. Larger studies have shown that spending time preparing your own food reduces food costs, as well. To increase savings, try buying dried beans instead of canned, frozen produce (with no added sugars or sauces) instead of fresh, buying in bulk, or doing “Meatless Mondays” where your only staples are a budget-friendly whole grain and colorful vegetables.
Want to start healthy habits for your children? Studies have found that children who adhered to a Mediterranean diet are less likely to be overweight. The staples of the diet can be transformed into just about any kid-friendly food (peanut butter and banana sandwich, anyone?) and having your child stick to a Mediterranean diet sets healthy eating examples early in life.